100 Greatest TV Episodes Add-on – Free Churro (BoJack Horseman)

*SPOILER WARNING* – This literally just came out, but I couldn’t not add it. I watched it four times in the 24 hours it came out. I may regret this over time.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that this episode hit me especially hard as it deals with giving a eulogy, something that I recently had to do. I know that it feels different than giving a speech or doing a performance or speaking to a courtroom or reciting a monologue. I would not have believed that a show featuring an animated horse could have managed to address all of the complicated elements of trying to summarize how you felt about the life of a person (or horse) that you knew deeply in 25 minutes (let alone the five that I took). However, somehow, they managed to not only nail it, but nail it while having the eulogy be done by a character whose relationship to the deceased was extremely complicated.

SUMMARY

The cold open features a young BoJack (Will Arnett) being picked up by his father, Butterscotch (Arnett), who proceeds to give his son a horrifying lecture that concludes with the lesson that you can’t depend on anyone.

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Butterscotch is every angry failed writer.

We then see BoJack at a funeral parlor next to a coffin. It’s revealed that his mother, Beatrice Horseman (Wendie Malick), has died. BoJack then proceeds to give a eulogy about his mother which alternates between funny, horrifying, poignant, and depressing. That is the entirety of the episode.

END SUMMARY

I can’t really summarize this episode, obviously. It needs to be seen to be believed. Aside from the cold open, this entire episode is just a speech by BoJack. I’ve never seen anything like it. One of the best monologues in the history of television was at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but that was only 6 minutes and included audience reaction shots. This was over three times that length and the camera never leaves BoJack. We don’t even see the audience until the last 5 seconds of the episode.

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We never see the body, but BoJack does an impression.

BoJack hated his mother, but he didn’t want to. That’s really an insane thing to have a character state outright. Maybe the worst part is when he mentions that he had always hoped that his mother would figure out how to love him the way that she should and that losing her means he finally has to accept that he will never get the love he wanted. Both of his parents, rather than loving him, chose to drown in sadness, something BoJack says he, too, will always chose to do. Because that’s sadly part of the cycle of abuse and depression. In the previous season we had seen how much Beatrice had herself been abused as a child, so she almost became sympathetic, but this episode removes much of that sympathy by reminding us that she knew something was wrong with her and she never tried to change it, even for BoJack’s sake. Instead, she took the love and trust of a child and broke it over and over again, watching her son try to fix it only so that she could destroy it once more, until he never could trust someone again.

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Granted, her dad lobotomized her mother, so she technically did better than that.

The episode’s title comes from what is one of the most uncomfortable but also somehow accurate parts of the eulogy, where BoJack relates that he stopped at Jack in the Box for food on the way to the funeral and the girl at the counter asks him if he’s “having an awesome day.” He opines that he’s usually not allowed to respond to that with anything except “yes,” because that’s a societal expectation, but he tells the girl that his mom died. She cries, horrified at what she’s done, and gives BoJack a free churro. He thinks about the fact that he got a free churro because his mom died, something he later comments was more kindness than he ever got from her.

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They don’t even look that great.

There’s one external reference I found particularly telling in the episode and, honestly, it might be the only one in it. Butterscotch mentions that Beatrice broke down crying after seeing a production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. If you haven’t read or seen the play, it features a man, Torvald, who, much like BoJack’s father, Butterscotch, treats his wife like a living doll, rather than a person. Some of the play involves his wife, Nora, preparing to dance the Tarantella on her husband’s request, something which her arouses her husband. The Tarantella signified violent movement which was supposedly designed to remove poison from the body. Within A Doll’s House, the idea is that Nora is trying to dance the poison out of her circumstances. This is mirrored within this episode by a story of Beatrice dancing at her supper club, while being watched by her husband. BoJack mentions that those were the only times where he felt that his family stopped drowning and remembered how to swim. If you want to know why Beatrice is crying, I imagine it’s because, at the end of A Doll’s House, Nora leaves her family. Beatrice didn’t, instead choosing to stay around the people who were just as miserable as she was.

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This truly is a masterpiece of an episode. The animation and Arnett’s voice acting are unbelievable, all building to a very sincere last thirty seconds, undercut by the last five.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Author Bonus: Heaven Sent (Doctor Who)

This is an author add-on, but I don’t feel like figuring out what number it would be. When I saw this episode, I knew I loved it, but it took me re-watching it to realize something important about it. I’ll get into that in a minute.

Quick Recap of the show:

The premise of the show is that there is a being called the Doctor that travels through time and space with various companions to fight evil. He’s an alien from a race called the Time Lords who lives and journeys in a 60s British Police Box called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Sometimes he fights aliens, sometimes he eats hot dogs, sometimes he meets famous historical figures. Honestly, he just kind of travels, but the TARDIS tends to take him where he needs to be. Sometimes he changes history, sometimes he can’t, depending on the writing. At the time of this episode, there had been 12 doctors, and the current one was played by Peter Capaldi. His companion at the time was a woman named Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), who had been killed moments before this episode started, and he was forcibly teleported away.

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Yes, he plays the guitar.

SUMMARY

The episode begins with a wounded figure walking through a castle, as the Doctor’s voice-over talks about the fact that Death is always following. You run, it walks, but it’s always coming. Then, one day you sit still too long, and it catches you. The unidentified figure flips a switch, writes the word “Bird” in the dirt, expires, and disintegrates into a skull just as the Doctor is teleported into the same room.

The Doctor speaks, assuming that whoever brought him here can hear him, telling them that they should be very afraid right now, if they had any part in Clara’s death, and that he will never stop coming for them.

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The Doctor finds himself inside of a castle in the middle of an ocean which constantly reforms and shifts around him. He determines from the teleporter that he can only be within 1 light-year of the Earth, so he knows that, when the sun sets, he can use the stars to tell his location. However, he also finds out that he is not alone. There is a monstrous figure of a veiled old woman, covered in flies, which slowly comes after him. The Doctor quickly realizes that the figure is from his childhood, from a funeral of an old woman he knew, where the heat was so great that the flies attacked her veiled corpse. Someone is using his oldest fear against him.

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Trapped at the end of the hallway, the Doctor confesses that he is afraid to die, which causes the Veil to stop, allowing the Doctor to escape. He realizes that the figure will stop when he confesses a deep truth. It’s not trying to kill him, it’s interrogating him. The Veil shortly catches up to him again, but he escapes by jumping out of a window.

DoctorWhoTardisThen, the scene shifts to the Doctor inside of the TARDIS, talking to himself. It turns out that, due to the extremely advanced nature of his brain, whenever he has to make a quick decision, he goes into a mental version of the TARDIS where he can make calculations about the situation that would take hours outside in the span of seconds. Calculating the time of impact to the water, the Doctor avoids breaking his neck and the shock.

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As he awakens under the water, he sees that the ocean is filled with skulls. Mountains of skulls. He makes his way back to shore and begins investigating the castle. For days, the Doctor explores the castle, avoiding the Veil. He discovers a message to him: “I AM IN 12.” The Doctor escapes the Veil again by confessing another fact: He ran away when he was younger because he was scared. He realizes that the Veil walks so slowly that, if he lures the Veil to one end of the castle, then runs to the other, he has 82 minutes before it catches up.

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After more time passes while he works to find room 12 in 82 minute increments, the Doctor returns to the starting room, and sees the word “Bird” written in the dirt, as well as the skull of the figure from the beginning. A passage opens, leading upward. The Doctor stands on the roof of the castle, looking at the stars, and observes that, by their movement, he has traveled 7,000 years into the future. He then accidentally knocks the skull into the water, when avoiding the Veil again. The Doctor confesses one more fact to the Veil: He knows the identity of the greatest fear of the Time Lords – “The Hybrid.” He doesn’t disclose who the Hybrid is, however.

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This confession finally reconfigures the castle so that the Doctor can access Room 12, where he finds the TARDIS behind a wall of crystal. This crystal is Azbantium, a substance 400 times harder than Diamond, and the wall is 20 feet thick. Then, the Doctor thinks back to the word “Bird” and finally remembers everything. More on that in a second.

The Doctor realizes that “Bird” is a reference to the fable “The Shepherd’s Boy” by the Brothers Grimm. And this breaks him, causing him to beg to be allowed to lose. To quit. Not to be the hero this time. However, a memory of Clara makes him press on.

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So, with the veil approaching him, the Doctor starts punching the wall until the Veil catches him, and mortally wounds him. Dying, the Doctor crawls back up the stairs to the teleporter room, and uses the re-setting of the room to create another version of himself as he expires. The new Doctor then begins to recite the speech from the beginning of the episode.

doctorwhocapaldidying-e1521148401528.jpgWhat follows is a montage of doctors re-living the same sequence we just watched, over, and over, and over again. For FOUR AND A HALF BILLION YEARS, as he slowly punches through the wall, a punch or 3 each lifetime. Then, he is mortally wounded again, and has to agonizingly limp back to start the whole cycle over with his last breath. However, we watch as the Doctor slowly tells the Veil the story of the “Shepherd’s Boy,” in one of my favorite sequences in the show’s history.

“There’s this emperor and he asks this shepherd’s boy, “How many seconds in eternity?” And the shepherd’s boy says, “There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it! Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed! You must think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”

The Doctor finally breaks through the wall and escapes, revealing that he’s been inside of his confession dial, basically a Time Lord will and testament, the entire time. And he sees that he’s on Gallifrey, and that his own people, the Time Lords, were the ones that put him there. He tells a small boy “Tell them I’m back. Tell them I know what they did, and I’m on my way. And if they ask you who I am, tell them I came the long way around.”

END SUMMARY

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This scene of eating soup is amazing. Really.

Okay, so, this paragraph will probably kill me: Peter Capaldi is the best actor to portray the Doctor thus far. I’m sorry, but I genuinely believe that. I love David Tennant, and I think he is the best Doctor, and he is definitely My Doctor, but Tennant is behind Capaldi in terms of actual acting ability. This episode proved it. Capaldi explores every aspect of the Doctor in this episode, and he does it with such a level of subtlety and skill that he manages to get you to forget how relatively little actually happens in this episode. Tennant may have loved the role enough to bring it life that no other Doctor has (sorry Pertwee, Eccleston, Smith, and the Bakers), but dammit, this episode is up there with Martin Sheen in The West Wing or Elisabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale. This is the sh*t people get awards for, and it’s an episode of DOCTOR WHO, a usually lighthearted sci-fi show. It’s the same reason why I love Captain Picard the most, because Patrick Stewart could bring you in with his performances when he was the focus. Capaldi just… f*cking nailed it.

The Groundhog Day-esque loops at the end are amazing, and it really does serve to show exactly how slow the Doctor’s progress is as he punches his way to freedom. Watching him die over and over again really makes us feel uncomfortable, because this is our protagonist undergoing agony dozens of times before our eyes, and billions more offscreen.

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Also, the final remembrance. That’s the part that I think sets this episode apart. See, he’s not just realizing what “Bird” means, he’s remembering all of the times he’s done this before. He’s realizing that he’s suffered this sequence thousands of times, and that he’s going to have to do it billions of times to get free. He wants to quit. He wants to give up. This is a torment that no mind should be able to bear, being chased, tortured, and killed for basically as long as the Earth has existed, but he just quickly resolves that he’ll do it, he’ll bear it, he’ll persevere and he’ll triumph, because that’s what he has to do. He even realizes that he could be free in an instant just by confessing who the Hybrid is: But he refuses to do it, because it’s an important secret that should be kept (it’s later revealed to be a friend of his). He’s willing to undergo hell to protect that secret. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield, as a better author said.

This episode is one of the best hours of Doctor Who, and it is just watching the Doctor through triumph, agony, failure, regret, and overcoming the odds, all in short order. It explores levels of the character that we rarely touch upon, and it rests largely upon Capaldi’s performance combined with some excellent writing and cinematography. Truly, this was wonderful.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Reader Bonus: The Sad Tale of Henry (Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends)

Alright, so, this episode of a children’s show is fairly infamous and goes around the internet on occasion. Why? Because it’s basically an example of cruel and unusual punishment.

Quick background on the show:

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Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends takes place on the Island of Sodor. It’s a fictional island in the Irish Sea that’s heavily industrialized with a massive railway system, and all of the trains, and many of the other vehicles, possess human faces, emotions, and a degree of autonomy. This becomes important in a minute.

ThomasAndFriendsHenry.pngThe most famous character is Thomas, a tank engine (meaning he carries his water for his steam on-board in a water tank), who is engine number 1, and has a very cheeky but upbeat personality. However, the focus of this episode is Henry, engine number 3. The episode is narrated by none other than Ringo freaking Starr.

ThomasAndFriendsHenry2When it starts to rain on the island, Henry, worried that the rain is going to ruin his nice new paint job, goes into a tunnel to hide, blocking off one of the two tunnels to get through those hills. Sir Topham Hatt, the fat controller of the rail system, tells the train guard to get a rope, and has all the workers on the rail line try to pull Henry out of the tunnel. Henry refuses to budge, stating that he doesn’t want to ruin his paint. The workers point out that it isn’t raining anymore, but Henry says that it will eventually, and then it’ll ruin his paint. Topham Hatt has the workers try to push Henry through, but Henry refuses to budge.

It’s worth noting that Topham Hatt does not actually try to pull or push with the people, instead citing that he has a note from his doctor not to do any actual work.

Finally, they send Thomas to try and push him through, but Henry still refuses to budge. Frustrated, Topham Hatt decides that they’re going to punish Henry. So, they brick him up inside of the tunnel.

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Now, again, this is a train with emotions, who talks, feels, and thinks just like a human. He’s been inconveniencing the rail for about a day, if that. And their solution is to BRICK HIM INSIDE OF THE TUNNEL, rendering the tunnel he’s in useless anyway. They only do the bottom half, however, so that he can see out, and the other trains can mock him as they pass. But, Henry can’t really respond anymore; he has no steam left, because he’s TRAPPED IN A F*CKING TUNNEL. Since, apparently, he can’t die, they leave him in there just to be mocked at and stay there forever, with a sad look on his face.

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ThomasAndFriendsMontressor.jpgEdgar Allan Poe once described a similar idea in a short story called “The Cask of Amontillado.” A man, Montressor, bricks up an enemy, Fortunato, leaving him to die behind a wall, over what is stated to be an “insult.” Fortunato doesn’t appear to have realized it was that big of a deal, or that he’d even offended Montressor. To justify his actions, Montressor merely states that it comes from his family motto: “No one attacks me with impunity.” It’s basically a massive, cruel overreaction to a small grievance. This children’s show just did the same thing, and made it even worse by having Ringo end the narration with: “Soot and dirt from the tunnel had spoiled his green paint with red stripes anyway. Henry wondered if he would ever be allowed to pull trains again. But I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?”

Yes, Ringo, teach the children that minor inconveniences should be handled with horror-story punishments. Other kid steal your toy? Cut their heart out and bury it under the floor. Someone pushes you on the playground? Tie them to the ground and slowly lower a razor-sharp pendulum towards their stomach. This episode is basically made to create sociopaths.

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Goes well with the “My First Hieronymus Bosch” coloring book.

Fortunately, if you watch the very next episode, Henry is actually let out of the tunnel after another of the trains is disabled, and Henry agrees to go back to pulling the train cars again. That episode ends with Henry learning that the best way to keep his paint nice is to ask his driver to “rub him down after a run.”

So, remember, kids: Over the top punishments are fine, but you can stop once you need that person to perform an essential task and you have literally no other options. That way, you’ve tortured them into complacency.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

The 5 Greatest Easter Episodes

Happy Easter, everyone! Eat some candy in the shape of a bunny or a chick, eat some jelly beans, paint some eggs, go to church for the first time since Christmas, and blow up a cart in front of the Duomo. In honor of this most oddly-celebrated of holidays, I present to you the 5 best TV Easter episodes of all time:

Runner up: The Turtles and the Hare (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle)

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It’s Easter, and Krang and Shredder are trying to use their “Docilizer” ray to turn everyone as docile as rabbits (because they haven’t seen Watership Down). A Bunny-Suited Bebop and Rocksteady even manage to get April O’Neil just as she’s calling the Turtles for help. To counteract the ray, the Turtles need a crystal from a “fairy tale dimension.” When they go there, they encounter Hokum Hare, the rabbit from “The Tortoise and the Hare,” who they befriend and eventually drag back to Earth. Hokum helps defeat the evil plan, then acts as the “Easter Bunny” for the Channel 6 Easter Egg Hunt.

The biggest mistake in this episode is that they couldn’t get Usagi Yojimbo back to play the Easter Bunny. If you know who that is, you agree with me.

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5) It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown!

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Okay, so, never let it be said the Linus Van Pelt (Stephen Shea) was a quitter. Despite the fact that he failed to find the Great Pumpkin, he believes that the Easter Beagle is going to take care of all of the Easter festivities. Meanwhile, the rest of the Peanuts gang tries to celebrate in all their usual ways. The highlight of the episode is Peppermint Patty (Linda Ercoll) trying to teach Marcie (Jimmy Ahrens) how to decorate eggs. Marcie’s complete lack of experience leads her to ruin so many of the eggs that eventually Patty is out of money, without a single egg done.

Meanwhile, Lucy (Melanie Kohn) tries to create a private egg hunt, but Snoopy (Bill Melendez) follows behind her and steals the eggs. On Easter, Snoopy runs through town as the “Easter Beagle,” distributing eggs to everyone. However, when he gets to Charlie Brown (Todd Barbee), he runs out. Embarrassed, Snoopy gives him the basket. Charlie Brown is the loser, after all.

It was a cute follow up to the Great Pumpkin, and Patty and Marcie are hilarious.

4) Little House: The Last Farewell

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So, after 10 years of Little House on the Prairie, the show finally ended, but there were three TV Specials that came after. For reasons that will become obvious, this is the last one of those (though the Christmas one got delayed, so it aired after).

So, basically, it’s a few years after the end of the show, and Charles and Caroline Ingalls (Michael Landon and Karen Grassle) stay in the little house from the show while the Carters, who took over the house during the last season, are out of town.

However, a land tycoon has actually acquired the deed to the town of Walnut Grove where the show took place. The town tries to defeat the claim in court, but they lose. They try to force the tycoon to leave, but the tycoon is backed by the army (and, btw, he does actually own the land, the town was built illegally and adverse possession didn’t apply to the territories). So, Laura (Melissa Gilbert), encourages the town, on the last Sunday, Easter Sunday, to do the just thing.

So, the town celebrates Easter by dynamiting all of the buildings, ruining the property value before the tycoon gets there. And this was completely real, btw. Michael Landon was told that the studio had to return the property back to its original state, and this was his solution: Blow up the town they had built for the show. However, since the town is at Easter mass, the church was the only building left (aside from the Little House). I can only assume this was the best sermon ever.

3) The Easter Bunny is Coming to Town

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This is the second Rankin/Bass Easter Special after Here Comes Peter Cottontail, but I’m going with this one because it starts in the town of Kidville, which is a weird socialist dystopia populated entirely by orphans… because the next town over, called Town, won’t allow children. This is such a bizarre set-up that I can’t help but love it. The kids adopt a bunny named Sunny, who grows up trying to sell eggs.

When a bear keeps stealing them, the kids paint the eggs and Sunny tells the bear he’s selling colored stones as paperweights. The bear lets him through and Sunny distributes the eggs on Easter. The child king of the town declares him the “Easter Bunny,” but his aunt Lily, who actually runs the town, kicks Sunny out and outlaws eggs, making beans the only food. To get around this, Sunny brings the king Jelly Beans the next Easter, along with the eggs. However, the bear, thinking they’re colored stones, chucks the basket full of eggs, resulting in the Egg hunt being invented. The next year, when the aunt puts guards to stop Sunny from coming to town, Sunny covers himself in chocolate and Trojan Horses his way in. The next year, he just builds a train into the city, which renders all prior plans useless by comparison.

It’s a cute special that tries to explain why we have such a strange amalgam of Easter traditions in an interesting story. I refuse to apologize.

2) Simpsons Bible Stories (The Simpsons)

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On a hot Easter Sunday, Homer ticks off Reverend Lovejoy, leading him to just start reading the Bible. The Simpsons proceed to pass out during the sermon and dream of different bible tales.

First, Marge imagines herself as Eve to Homer’s Adam. Unlike the usual version, Adam eats the apple but frames Eve. Homer then tunnels her back into Eden using a Unicorn named Gary, who ends up dying. This Unicide leads God to kick them out.

Lisa imagines herself as the power behind Milhouse’s Moses. Lisa and Milhouse incite plagues against the Egyptians (which fail, because the Egyptians love eating frogs), until finally the pair lead the Hebrews to the Red Sea, which they drain by flushing a huge number of toilets. At the end, Milhouse asks Lisa what the future holds for the Jews. Rather than answering, Lisa tells them to find Manna.

Homer imagines himself as Solomon. Lenny and Carl bring a pie before him that both claim to own. Homer cuts it in half, then orders them killed so that he can eat the pie.

Bart envisions himself as David (who came before Solomon, for the record), who is dethroned by Goliath II, son of Goliath. David trains and kills Goliath II in combat, only to discover that Goliath II was a great ruler, much better than David. David is then arrested.

The Simpsons awaken to find that, due to them sleeping through church, they were not raptured and the apocalypse has come. Lisa begins to rise to heaven, but Homer pulls her back. The family then descends to hell, where Homer smells BBQ, as “Highway to Hell” plays.

1) Fantastic Easter Special (South Park)

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Stan Marsh is questioning all the goofy Easter traditions, but is told just to go with it. Unsatisfied, Stan starts investigating, and is followed by men in bunny suits. Eventually, he finds his dad, Randy, wearing bunny ears. Randy explains that he’s part of the “Hare Club for Men” who has been guarding the great secret of Easter since Jesus. However, the group is attacked by Catholic ninjas before they can explain, and Stan escapes with Snowball, a bunny.

Stan goes to Kyle for help, but, being Jewish, Kyle knows nothing of Easter. They then track down a professor of history who explains the secret: Peter, the Apostle and the First Pope, was a rabbit. That’s why the Pope has a mitre (to hide bunny ears). Snowball is the last descendent of Peter. The clues are contained within eggs (Easter Eggs) found in Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Stan and Kyle go to the Vatican with Snowball, but Bill Donohue of the American Catholic League proceeds to double cross the Pope, who is merciful and reasonable, and orders all the Hare Club killed, because he’s Bill Donohue, and this is exactly what he would do. Jesus himself descends to tell Donohue that he is wrong, but Donohue says that the church knows better than Jesus, because he’s Bill Donohue, and this is exactly what he would do (and has, btw). Kyle and Jesus are locked away together, and Jesus begs Kyle to kill him so that he can go to heaven, resurrect outside of the cell, and deal with Donohue. Kyle agrees (after telling Jesus that Cartman can never know of this), and Jesus returns, killing Donohue with the Glaive from Krull (because why not?). Snowball is made Pope and, because he’s a rabbit, says nothing, which is the point. People should figure out what’s right on their own.

Honestly, I love this episode. I think it’s a great parody of the Da Vinci Code, of Easter Specials, and of Bill Donohue (who loved the episode because he gave the Church “some guts” by ordering mass murder). And the final message is actually pretty good.

Happy Easter and Happy Watching!

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1)  Chuckles Bites the Dust (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)

Well, we’re finally at the last episode. You guys have suffered through all of the suspense. This is it. This is the best episode of TV that I’ve ever seen. I’m not alone, either, since this is one of the highest episodes on most critics’ lists. When I was researching great television in order to figure out what shows to watch, this show, and this episode in particular, was consistently highly rated, almost regardless of the nature of the critic or the list. It’s just that universally beloved.

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She increased hat throws by 1700%

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the result of changing times. Mary Richards (Moore) was a new kind of central figure on a sitcom: A single, working woman who didn’t really have a gimmick. She was just a normal person, who, as the result of a break-up, moved to Minneapolis to change careers. I realize that doesn’t sound particularly novel now, but this was 1970, that really hadn’t become a thing yet. Weirdly, the character was originally going to be a divorcee, but people thought that viewers might think that she had divorced Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), Moore’s husband on the Dick Van Dyke Show, despite the different names, locations, and being completely distinct characters. But, either way, Mary Richards was a different kind of protagonist than TV had shown before, and Moore played her perfectly.

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… Read it backwards

Mary originally works at WJM-TV, the lowest-rated TV station in Minneapolis, as an Associate Producer. She initially had only applied to be a secretary, but Lou Grant (Ed Asner), the station’s News Producer, liked her and gave her the better job. Later, when Grant got promoted to News Director, Mary took his job as News Producer, a job for which she was almost completely unqualified, but made work anyway.

MaryTylerMooreCastHer co-workers at WJM-TV made up most of the cast: Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod), the quippy head-writer for the news division; Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the buffoonish, vain, but occasionally sweet news anchorman; Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), host of the “Happy Homemaker Show” in the station; and Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel), Ted’s girlfriend-later wife. Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) and Rhoda Morganstern (Valerie Harper), Mary’s neighbors, had previously been regulars, but they both already had spin-offs by season 6, when this episode takes place.

One recurring, but mostly-off-screen, station member was Chuckles the Clown, the host of the “Chuckles the Clown Show” on the network. As many of you may have guessed from the title, this episode does not go well for him.

SUMMARY

MaryTylerMooreMonkeyThe episode begins with Ted being asked to be the Grand Marshall of the Circus Parade, but Lou refuses to let Ted take the role, believing it will undermine Ted’s already-limited credibility as a newsman. Ted later comes over to Mary’s apartment to complain about Lou’s actions, telling her that he’s going to leave the station. Ted quickly forgets about this threat when Mary says that the Circus already picked a new Grand Marshall: Chuckles the Clown.

The next day, Ted is still angry, but then Lou stumbles into the newsroom with dire news. Chuckles the Clown is dead. Apparently, Chuckles decided to use one of his characters, Peter Peanut, to host the parade, and a rogue elephant found him and “shelled” him to death.

Lou goes to tell Ted the news so that he can report it mid-broadcast, and tells Ted to ad-lib something “short, simple, and warm” in tribute to the long-time children’s show host. Ted proceeds to deliver a completely inept farewell, including Chuckles’ famous poem, “The Credo of a Clown”:

MaryTylerMooreTed

A little song, a little dance
A little seltzer, down your pants.

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Mourning the dead

The next day, the people at the station cannot stop making jokes about the way that Chuckles met his fate, all of them breaking down laughing after each witticism. Murray, in particular, keeps thinking up quips about it, which Lou flat-out explains as: “It’s a release, Murray. A kind of defense mechanism. It’s like whistling in a graveyard. You try to make light of something because it scares you. We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.”

Mary, however, thinks that everyone at the station is just being callous and disrespectful towards Chuckles’ death. In particular, she actually rejects Lou’s assertion that it’s a necessary release. Despite her attempts to keep it solemn, the other characters can’t stop breaking into fits of laughter over trying to make a solemn tribute out of a CLOWN.

At the funeral, quips are still being made, because, come on, they’re at a clown’s funeral. Mary finally shames Murray and Lou into stopping, just in time for the priest to begin the eulogy. Unfortunately, just as the priest is delivering his speech, Mary suddenly realizes how hilarious everything about the circumstances is, and cannot stifle her own laughter. Even worse, the priest tries to delve into the “great meaning” behind some of Chuckles’ routines (and, by the way, nails it), which just makes Mary laugh harder, embarrassing the rest of the cast.

MaryTylerMooreLaughFuneral

The Priest singles Mary out, and tells her that nothing would have made Chuckles happier than to have someone laugh. He lived to make people laugh. He hated sad occasions and crying, so nothing would be more appropriate than someone laughing through a funeral. Unfortunately, saying this makes Mary realize exactly the kind of man that left the world that day, and she breaks down in tears.

MaryTylerMooreChucklesFuneral

The episode ends with the cast discussing how they would want their funeral held, except for Ted, who thinks he’s going to live forever through cryogenics. Mary mocks this by asking him to keep some food from her fridge in with him.

END SUMMARY

MaryTylerMooreDavidLloydWhile credit should go to everyone involved in this episode, the biggest winner here is David Lloyd, the writer (who also worked on or created about 10 entries on this list). This episode only works because he was able to craft believable dialogue that could be simultaneously morbid and yet hilarious. Of course, it only worked because of great actors that could really put their all into making sure it was laughable. Honestly, everyone involved in this episode was working at 100%.

The #2 episode on this list, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” was amazing because it managed to show something horrifying (having your dream fail through no fault of your own) and turn it into something hilarious. This episode takes it one step further: You’re laughing at death. It turns one of the most tragic events, the death of a good person, and makes it hilarious, and then JUSTIFIES IT COMPLETELY. When Lou Grant is talking to Murray, he’s really telling the audience why it’s okay to laugh at this episode: Because it removes some of the sting from the reality that you’re going to die.

Now, I’m going to get personal for a second, when I picked this episode, I was still pretty sure I was going to die within a few months. The tumor was shrinking at this point, but I was also still pretty sure I was going to die, because it was statistically likely. This episode made that easier to deal with. Because it’s so much easier to deal with death by laughing at it, and that’s exactly what this episode is about. You laugh in death’s face, because death is going to win in the end.

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Sitcom Elephants are a menace

The death in this episode is also just so absurd that you have to laugh at it: It’s a clown in a peanut costume being shelled to death by an elephant. It’s something that’s so silly that it immediately makes you laugh a little at the inanity. There’s the added element of seeing Mary trying to take it so seriously while having to say things like the names of the characters that Chuckles used to play: “Mr. Fee-fi-fo,” “Billy Banana,” “Aunt Yoo-hoo,” and “Peter Peanut,” the character that killed him. Her insistence that it isn’t funny just makes it all the more obviously comical.

Then, we have the funeral. And that’s really the reason this episode won an Emmy for writing. After Mary has finally gotten everyone to take it seriously, the priest starts to give a somber, reflective oration on the many characters of a clown. Crazier still, it genuinely is meaningful:

There was always some deeper meaning to whatever Chuckles did. Remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo’s little catch phrase, remember how when his arch rival Senor Kaboom would hit him with the giant cucumber and knock him down? Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off and say, “I hurt my foo-foo.” Life’s a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foo’s. If only we could all deal with it as simple and bravely and honestly as Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo. And what did Chuckles ask in return? Not much–in his own words–“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

MaryTylerMooreChucklesThat’s actually a pretty great legacy: You showed people that you should just get yourself up and keep going when life gets you down. It’s not just that you were making them laugh, you were trying to make them better people. And that’s what breaks Mary down, in the end, because that’s a better legacy than she realized that he was leaving. It’s a better legacy than she is likely to leave, because it’s about the best one that anyone can. Chuckles the Clown spent his life trying to make people happy, trying to make everyone better, and trying to make the world a better place, one seltzer bottle at a time. Even though he’s a clown, one of my most hated enemies, you can’t help but think of him as Mr. Rogers in pancake make-up. That’s why it’s all the more fitting that his death will be laughed at forever, because nothing would have made him happier than giving people one more giggle. We should all be lucky enough to meet such a fate and to live such a life.

Afterwards, it’s even easier for the main characters to talk about their own demises, which includes Sue Ann’s desire to have her ashes scattered on Robert Redford, Mary’s desire just not to have a sad funeral organ playing, and Lou’s famous statement:

“When I go, I just wanna be stood outside in the garbage with my hat on.”

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“Just throw my body in the trash” was a callback, kids.

The only one who doesn’t really address his own mortality is Ted, who is too stupid to really conceive of it, instead believing that he’ll be immortal due to cryogenics.

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Unflappable

This episode also showcases one of the best features of Mary Richards as a protagonist: She’s usually covering up her self-perceived weaknesses with a disciplined exterior. In this episode, she is trying to force a level of somberness and sobriety upon something that everyone else recognizes is incredibly funny. She’s trying to stay above it all, because she thinks that’s what she’s supposed to do, but eventually, she just can’t fight it anymore, and it happens that she loses her composure at exactly the wrong time. The fact that this is Mary Richards, a woman who absolutely wouldn’t do this under any circumstances, only makes everything all the more impacting.

Within the Sitcom Industry, this episode was, and to a degree is, pretty much the gold standard. I told you earlier that an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show was used to teach screenwriting. Well, this episode was used to refine the craft of sitcom writing. It’s not that shows hadn’t killed off recurring characters before (people dying sometimes necessitated it), but this wasn’t done as a “very special episode,” it was just done as the set-up to a joke… and then, at last, turned into a pretty moving and meaningful sequence. A sequence, by the way, in which Moore never actually says a word.

Ultimately, the reason this episode won is that I don’t have another episode that makes death feel so much less scary without having to promise something fantastic, like a VR heaven or an actual divine guidance to the universe. This episode never addresses any of that. You die. It happens to everyone. Maybe there’s a God, maybe there’s an afterlife, or maybe there’s not. It doesn’t matter. You can laugh at it anyway, because all of life, including its end, is perfectly ridiculous. So, stop taking it so damned seriously, try to be the best person you can be, try to make everyone else’s lives happier by being in them, and enjoy it. Until we one day find out more about the nature of life and death, this episode has universal appeal. After all, somewhere out there is an Elephant with your name on it.

PREVIOUS – 2: I Love Lucy

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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2) Lucy Does a TV Commercial (I Love Lucy)

I got some messages during the course of this that I didn’t put enough Lucy on here, some of which were probably accurate. Hurt feelings compelled me to put a bonus one on here earlier, but I’m not really going to count it for the purposes of this review. Mostly because I wrote the rest of this before doing the new addition. But after writing this paragraph. Crazy.

ILoveLucyTitleThis is the second I Love Lucy episode on this list… and are any of you actually surprised? It’s I Love Lucy. The show has been re-run consistently for 50 years. People still love it. I wouldn’t have felt like I was making a huge mistake if I’d given it 20 spots on the list, I just realized that most of the episodes are pretty similar. I almost put on the episode with Lucy telling Ricky she’s pregnant, just because the look on his face singing “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me” is priceless. If you ask me to watch a random episode of this show or watch basically any reality show, I’d say “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!” To those of you who want to point out that Ricky never actually said that: I DON’T CARE.

ILoveLucyCastQuick Recap: The show had a pretty general premise. Lucille “Lucy” Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo and Enrique “Ricky” Alberto Fernando y de Acha Ricardo III (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) are married and they live in an apartment in New York, where they frequently interact with their friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). Ricky is a popular bandleader and singer at a club. Lucy is a housewife who dreams of stardom, despite her complete lack of talent, leading her to do things that usually are described with “Hijinks Ensue.” Also, credit to her, Lucille Ball’s greatest talent is her incredible ability to play someone without any talent whatsoever.

ILoveLucyMyFavoriteHusband.jpgMost people don’t know, however, that the show was actually supposed to be an adaptation of the radio show My Favorite Husband, which Ball had been on for several years. Originally, they wanted her to switch to TV with her radio co-star Richard Denning, but she requested that her husband on the show be her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. When CBS said they didn’t think that people would buy her being married to a Cuban (despite the fact that she actually had been married to one for 10 years by this point), she and Arnaz made a vaudeville act that they toured around which became a hit. So, CBS decided to take a chance on Ball. At the same time, My Favorite Husband ended, so Ball managed to get the writers of that show to come to write for I Love Lucy. And greatness was born.

ILoveLucyFCCThis episode was done to get around the censors. Back in the 1950s, the FCC had pretty strict rules on what could go on TV compared to today. They could ban any scenes which contained either “obscene” material, like nudity, and, during the times children would be awake, “indecent” material, like showing a married couple sharing a bed. The show had already shown that the Ricardos had twin beds, and would later get around the ban on the word “Pregnant” by using other words, including “enceinte.” However, this episode had to get around something bigger: The ban on showing drunkenness on camera. And their solution was amazing.

SUMMARY

ILoveLucyTV.pngThe episode starts with Lucy doing what she does best: Failing. Specifically, failing at darning socks to the point that she sewed the top up. Ricky receives a phone call saying that he has to pick a girl to do a commercial for one of the sponsors of his band’s upcoming television special. Lucy immediately tries to convince him to pick her, but he refuses and leaves for rehearsal. Fred comes over and agrees to help Lucy pitch a commercial to Ricky. When Ricky comes back, Lucy appears within the TV re-enacting one of the Phillip Morris ads that usually appeared on the show.* Lucy proceeds to try to go through the entire ad, but Ricky decides to plug in the TV, which causes a small explosion from the TV. Lucy leaves the TV, and upsets Ricky by revealing that she disassembled the TV so she could get in… despite the fact that the TV would have slid out of the frame easily.

The Next Day, Ricky asks Fred to wait for the call from the girl he picked so that he can tell her where to go to film the ad, but Lucy convinces Fred to let her answer the phone. Naturally, she tells the girl who calls that the show is cancelled and decides to go herself.

Okay, so, the next scene is how they got around the censors. The show cuts to the set of the commercial, where the commercial film crew is talking about the product, a health tonic named:

ilovelucyvitameatavegaminsign-e1520887607844.jpg

Truly the greatest title ever given to a product. Suck it, Pocket Fisherman.

ILoveLucyCoughSyrup
Who needs the FDA?

While discussing the tonic, the script clerk begins to read off the ingredients as the director walks away. “It’s got everything in it. Meat, vegetables, minerals, vitamins,” then, after the director leaves, “alcohol 23%.” This makes Vitameatavegamin stronger than the US allows for fortified wines.

Lucy arrives, using her maiden name “Lucille McGillicuddy” to avoid anyone associating her with Ricky. The Script Clerk leaves without telling anyone about his discovery of the ingredients, and Lucy does a dry run of the commercial, which is fast-paced and contains a lot of alliteration, including taking a tablespoon of the tonic (which tastes awful, by her expression).

ILoveLucyTaste

The director makes her go through several more takes, each time having Lucy take another spoonful of the tonic. Ricky then shows up and sees Lucy preparing for the commercial. The Director says it’s too late to find another woman, so Ricky agrees to let her appear in the commercial. After Ricky leaves, Lucy runs through several more takes, slowly getting more and more intoxicated (without anyone knowing what’s happening).

ILoveLucyDrunkGif.gifLucy then runs through the commercial over and over again, completely botching it as she unintentionally gets completely hammered. Since it’s Lucille Ball, she proceeds to go over-the-top crazy with the performance to the point that it’s basically every drunk person every screaming “I’m fine, I swear, I’m fine” trying to deliver a very complicated speech. And it is beautiful. It’s genuinely impressive that Ball can so believably say all of the spoonerized lines so quickly. Then, finally, she breaks all pretense of acting and just starts chugging the bottle until the director sends her to a dressing room to lie down.

Ricky returns to host the show, and starts to perform his opening musical number, when Lucy stumbles back onto the set of the commercial. She then sees Ricky performing and, as most women were in the 1950s, finds Ricky damned sexy when he’s singing in Spanish. Lucy, too drunk to remember that Ricky is on live TV, or at least too drunk to care, decides to join him and starts singing, badly, when he tries to carry on with the show. If you’ve ever played “Livin’ on a prayer” at a wedding, it’s like the people singing along with that. Finally, a plastered Lucy starts to deliver her commercial monologue, before Ricky desperately carries her off stage.

ILoveLucyCarry

END SUMMARY

Alright, so, why is this episode so great?

Lucille. Désirée. Ball.

Look, no description is going to really do this episode justice. Lucille Ball was one of the best physical performers to ever grace the screen. She studied clowning to master the faces, only she didn’t wear the horrifying make-up or the stupid pants. Her timing is almost supernaturally good when she gets going, and it turns out that having to pretend to be a drunk was basically the best set-up you could give her.

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Wouldn’t you buy from her?

When I first watched this, I compared it to the “$99,000 Answer” from The Honeymooners, but the message is actually more tragic and therefore more comical. In the “$99,000 Answer,” Ralph Kramden’s humiliation comes from the fact that he focused so hard on the end that he stumbled at the start. Here, Lucy’s dreams of stardom aren’t dashed due to her own failings. Sure, she had to act a little unethically to get the part, but, really, that was just to counter the fact that Ricky refused to ever give her a fair chance. When it came down to it, she was actually doing the commercial pretty much the way that it was supposed to be done. The Director even convinced Ricky she was doing a great job. She didn’t know, or have any reason to suspect, that there was a ton of alcohol in the tonic. She did everything right, it just happens that she was being sabotaged without her knowledge. More than that, she was being sabotaged without anyone’s knowledge. Her aspirations were destroyed by bad luck. Objectively, what you’re watching was a tragic occurrence.

ILoveLucyDrunkGif2The core of comedy is being able to subvert the sad and the tragic, and this is someone actually using the very thing that’s causing their downfall to create humor. And since most of it is derived from physical comedy and spoonerisms, it is basically universally funny. It’s the perfect clowning performance.

When this first aired, 68% of the television audience at the time watched it. Yeah, there were only four channels, but that was more than 15% higher than the lead-in, and more than 30% over the following show Life with Luigi, so you can’t just pretend that this was a normal occurrence. Vitameatavegamin basically became shorthand for the show. For example, to celebrate Lucille Ball’s 100th Birthday, Lucy look-a-likes gathered under a sign for the fake company. That’s how much this episode stood out, even among the other great episodes of the show.

Best episode of probably the most famous show of all time. I guess that’s really the TL;DR here.

PREVIOUS – 3: The West Wing

NEXT – 1: The Mary Tyler Moore Show

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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*This is a moment for a brief aside: Phillip Morris Cigarettes, while they are mass-killing monsters who spent billions of dollars trying to get children addicted to nicotine, were also the only sponsors of I Love Lucy for the first few seasons. They also were probably one of the only sponsors who would have agreed to allow the show to be recorded on film (in exchange for $1000/week out of Lucy and Desi’s pay), which is the reason why the show was able to be re-run at full quality, which basically re-shaped television forever. Doesn’t make up for all the cancer, but history is complicated, I guess.

3) Two Cathedrals (The West Wing)

Well, the impact of this one has certainly changed a bit since it aired. And, honestly, I think it might be even more relevant. The show hasn’t changed, of course, but the reality in which I watch it has been shifting for the last few years. The portrayal of the White House during what is essentially the Clinton Era Pre-Scandal is so starkly different to the subsequent portrayals that have colored most of my lifetime that it seems impossible to me that it’s the most accurate one, but, with limited exception, this seems to be how the White House has worked since WWII. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, because politics is run by people and people are ridiculous. Sometimes it’s overwhelmingly serious, because holding political office is dealing with situations and situations are serious. The balance shifts depending on the world, not the administration. The administration merely follows the world. The West Wing managed to portray all of that coherently.

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The show takes place in the West Wing of the White House during the Presidency of Democrat Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin “You know damned well who I am” Sheen), and covers the day-to-day work and life of Bartlett and his staff: Leo McGarry (John Spencer), the White House Chief of Staff; C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), the White House Press Secretary; Josh Lyman (Bradley “Stop thinking of me from Billy Madison” Whitford), the Deputy Chief of Staff; Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), the White House Communications Director; Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), White House Deputy Communications Director; Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), Josh’s assistant; and Charlie Young (Dulé “Doughnut Holschtein” Hill).

While all of the characters in the show are amazing, and each could merit an entire entry’s worth of discussion, the focus of this episode is going to be on President Bartlet, because anything less would be spitting on a profound performance. The President actually wasn’t even supposed to be a character on the show. Aaron Sorkin originally planned to show him only in passing and only in a few episodes, but Sheen’s performance was so powerful that he quickly became the lead. Bartlet is a Democrat, a devout Catholic, a polymath so learned that it pretty much only can exist in fiction, a patriot of the highest order, a gifted speaker, and a caring man who balances his love of the country with accepting how much he has to deceive and bargain with both the people and other politicians in order to be allowed to do what he knows is the right thing.

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A man who can quote the Gospel and the Constitution and knows they shouldn’t interact

In the first season, it is revealed that the President has a relapsing-remitting form of Multiple Sclerosis that he has concealed since before he ran for office. In this episode, he discloses it to the world, while the Democratic Party basically tells him that they would not endorse him to run another term because of it. The condition doesn’t impact him more than once every few years, and usually not too severely, but it is a neurological degenerative disorder, and it could potentially make him unfit in the future.

SUMMARY

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Her usual expression

Right before this episode starts, the President’s executive secretary, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten and Kirsten Nelson in flashback), one of the most lovable characters ever on television, is killed by a drunk driver. She had just bought a new car, and the president had asked her to come show it to him. Flashbacks of his adolescence with her as the secretary at the school his father ran occur throughout the episode. A large part of the episode is set at her funeral. Afterwards, the President asks to be alone in the National Cathedral. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the National Cathedral, but it is a breathtaking building, regardless of your faith or lack thereof. And this episode is the last time that anyone has been allowed to film in it, which makes it only the more fitting that Martin Sheen delivers one of the best monologues on film to the figure of Christ.

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Bartlet is vocally a Christian, and he is not a hypocrite about it, which is basically inconceivable for any modern politician. He has the Bible memorized, and has read more commentary on it than most people would even guess existed. He quotes verses throughout the series, but still understands that it is the responsibility of his faith to shape him, not his policies, which are shaped by being an American first. That’s why it’s all the more stunning when he starts it by telling God “You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?”

WestWingBartletArmsBartlet then proceeds to unload on God for the unfairness of life, in a way that should be all too real for anyone who has ever had faith. He talks about how he sinned by lying about his disease, but that it’s not fair that such a thing would outweigh everything else he’s done. He’s been faithful, he’s done good works, moreso than almost any President at the time. And yet, the sweetest person in his life, one of the most sincerely good people he’s ever known, was killed the day she bought her first new car by a drunk driver. As Bartlet puts it. “Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war, I’ve raised three children… That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse?”

WestWingBartletHalo.jpgHe ends with the lines “Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem. [roughly translated, because I haven’t taken Latin in a decade: Should I believe these things are from a pious God? A just God? A knowing God? Damn your punishments! I was your servant on Earth, I was your messenger; I did my duty. Damn your punishments. Damn You.] He then smokes a cigarette, the thing that his father had admonished him against during his youth, puts it out on the floor of the cathedral (which is why they banned filming there), and says “You get Hoynes,” the less morally-sound Vice-President who is presumed to be the next presidential candidate for the Democratic Party.

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This is why no one can film here anymore

The staff are then told that the President will not seek re-election. The only ones who appear to believe that he might change his mind are Toby and Leo, the two people who convinced him to run in the first place.

WestWingYoungLandinghamThe President then flashes back to his childhood where his father hits him for writing an article opposing book-banning, and derides his intelligence by saying that Jed is only at the school because his father is headmaster. In the present, he sees a vision of Mrs. Landingham who tells him to consider all of the people who have it worse than him, but, unlike most people when saying this, she means that he needs to think about how many people need his help. He recites the problems that he wants to fix, problems that have remained relevant, sadly, since this episode aired. She then says to him the same thing she told him when he was a boy:

“You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run ’cause you think it’s gonna be too hard or you think you’re gonna lose… well, God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”

WestWingLightningThe President then walks outside and stands in the presence of the strongest storm to hit DC in May in history, before going in front of the White House Press Corps. Bartlet chooses to avoid the softball question that the team had prepared for him, instead choosing another reporter who asks him directly if he’ll be seeking a second term. Bartlet puts his hands in his pockets, looks away, and smiles, something that Mrs. Landingham said is his way of saying “I’ve made up my mind to do it.”

END SUMMARY

One of the things that most amazed me was that the show doesn’t say what the Two Cathedrals are, and, within the episode, it could be interpreted several ways. They could be the Cathedral shown at Jed’s School in the flashbacks, where he first put out a cigarette and met Mrs. Landingham, and the National Cathedral where he puts out another one and says goodbye to her. But, I think the two Cathedrals are the National Cathedral and the Oval Office, and I’ll tell you why (because it’s my list and you can deal with it).

westwingbartletmontage2.jpgAt the National Cathedral, Josiah Bartlet renounces his faith. He renounces his faith in God, obviously, but along than that, he renounces his faith in himself and America. He doesn’t believe he can hold the office anymore, and he doesn’t believe that America wants him anymore. He thinks he isn’t enough, as a Catholic, as a son, as a President, as an American, and he is resentful that he could have worked this hard and done this much and still feel like he is a failure and that he’s being punished for it. He ends it by telling God to go to Hell, in so many words, and condemns America to a lesser president. He’s done with America, he’s done with God, he’s done believing in things.

And yet, a few hours later, at the Oval Office, he finds it all again from a vision of Mrs. Landingham. She clearly is just a manifestation of his own subconscious, because she says to him all the things that he already knows: His father was a prick, God doesn’t send drunk drivers to kill people, and that there is more work to be done. Bartlet’s greatest strength as a president is that he cares about all of the people behind the numbers. He recites the statistics of children born into poverty, the collapsing schools, the uninsured citizenry, the drug crisis, the high rate of incarceration, but it’s clear that he doesn’t care that these things are holding America back, he’s upset because it means people are suffering that he wants to help be better. Regardless of party or philosophy or anything else, this is what should first define a presidential candidate. The fact that it doesn’t is the greatest flaw in a Democracy.

WestWingBartletWetThat’s what this episode reminds us: That our leaders need to be the people who are doing it for everyone else, not for themselves or their friends. Unfortunately, the episode also reminds us exactly why it’s so difficult for us to get those people: Because caring breaks people, and having to care about everyone breaks all but the toughest. Therefore, the people who make it further in politics are either the strongest, or the ones who don’t actually care. The problem is, the strongest won’t make it without stumbling. They will fail. They will lose faith. They will become angry that the world is not fair or just or merciful. They may give up. But they will come back. They will climb back out of that hole and they will conquer. Sadly, people will assume these moments of stumbling are a sign of weakness, which gives the advantage to the uncaring, something the show has pointed out on multiple occasions. The judgment of the masses feeds sociopathy, not courage.

Bartlet gets back up, and he baptizes himself in the rain as a sign of his renewed faith, not only in God, but in America. It’s a powerful scene that perfectly complements his anger within the church. It’s made even more lasting by having Bartlet and the rest of the staff come together to go to the press conference to the song “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits, signifying that Bartlet knows one other key to being a great President: To inspire great people to follow you.

All of the President’s staff, from the chief to the secretaries to the cooks, feel as if they are on the battlefield with him. They’re all part of the same team, and they trust that everyone on the team, even if they don’t agree how, is working for the benefit of the American public. One of my favorite lines on the show is that when one of the staff outlines the goals for the day, Bartlet corrects them and says:

“The first priority is always: How can we be making life better for American citizens?”

It’s corny, but it’s also exactly the kind of message that you need to focus on. We’re not lowering taxes, we’re not lowering unemployment, we’re not improving education. We may do all of those things, but they’re incidental to the goal of making life better for Americans.

It’s also worth noting that this episode does not portray Bartlet as being a self-made man. Far from it, it suggests that, while he had all the talent in the world, his ethics and success are the product of two women: His mother, who gave him his faith, and Mrs. Landingham, who taught him to use his powerful mind and will for the benefit of others. It’s an interesting window into the character.

This episode is the highest dramatic performance on the list. The only two remaining are comedies, and that’s a little bit because this one required watching the show up to this point to truly appreciate, whereas someone who knows nothing of the show could watch the last two. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this could easily be listed as the greatest episode of television by critics. Please, when you find an hour, watch it.

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If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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